Thursday, October 28, 2010

The pirated discs peddled is illegal publication!

Yep, you read that right: "The pirated discs peddled is illegal publication" - I saw that notice last week just outside the Yashao market downtown. (See the picture on the right.)

Ironically, that same evening, I was watching one of those illegally "peddled" pirated DVDs, with my feet nice and warm in a pair of new, fake, Ugg boots :-)

First of all: There are no places here where you can rent DVDs. No Netflix, no Blockbusters, no "videotheek". You only have those "illegal DVD" stores where everyone buys a couple bootlegged copies of America's latest movies for about about 10-15 kuai ($1.50 to $2.00). And where can one find those illegal stores? Well, they are simply inside a supermarket or shopping mall and definitely not hidden at all. If it wasn't for the "pirated discs peddled" signs, I would not know it was illegal.

Second of all: If you are interested in some nice new clothes of a famous brand, come shop at the market I mentioned before. Yashao is full of fake and (according to the sales people) real clothes of well-known brands. You can find a Columbia jacket for maybe $25, or Uggs for $30. (OK, that is the price I paid, and I probably paid too much -- still learning how to negotiate a good price...)

Apparently anything you want can be copied in China. Want a woolen sweater? Go to the wool spinners market and show your design (e.g. an old sweater you like), and they'll make it for you. Want a painting on the wall? How about a copy of a Van Gogh? Need a new skirt? Just go to any tailor and show a picture you just cut out of Vogue. Want a neckless? Just pick a design or bring or buy your own beads and they'll put it together on the spot for less than you pay at H&M.

Pretty neat. If you are planning to come to Beijing, I suggest you start cutting things out of the Cosmopolitan :-)

Here are some quick pictures of the market. Note that this "market" is all indoors, with a lot of tiny stalls inside one big building.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The People's Money

As I mentioned in my last post, life now is starting to revolve around regular family-type events, like soccer, school, and work. Having said that, however, there’s plenty of new things that are now part of our lives.

Yesterday, for example, I carried a big heavy envelop full of cash to my language school, to pay for my next set of Chinese classes. Most places prefer cash over bank transfers, as cash is faster and more reliable than transferring funds between banks. I've heard that especially between banks in the SAME city this can be quite problematic. As a result, I dragged around a huge pile of 100 yuan notes. Good thing I had a big bag, because it did not fit in my wallet.

By the way, there are actually three names that are used for money here. The currency itself is called RMB, which stands for Renminbi, "the people’s money". The main unit of it is the yuan, but in spoken Chinese (at least here in Beijing), people say “kuai” instead of yuan. So a replica of an ancient Ming vase will be 5000 kuai (or perhaps 200 kuai if you negotiate it down to a reasonable level).

One yuan can be divided in 10 jiao (sort of like a dime or a “dubbeltje” if you will), which in normal life is called a mao. You can see some notes of 1 and 5 jiao in the pictures below.

One thing I had to got used to with the money (other than the physical effort involved in carrying all those notes) was how prices are described. If something is $1.50 or €1,50, you simply say something like “one blah blah fifty”. But if something is ¥1.50, you actually don’t say "one yuan fifty", you say “one yuan five”. And along the same lines, ¥1500 would be called "1 qian 5" (qian = 1000). Interesting, huh?

Please do check out my money in the pictures here -- on the right is the pile of notes for my language school. (Thieves take note: the money is already gone!)

5, 10, 20, and 50 yuan notes:

1 jiao (the "dime" or "dubbeltje"):

5 jiao:

Monday, October 18, 2010

Walking where emperors walked - Xiangshan park

Hello friends,

It's been two weeks since my last update, which can only be explained by the fact that all of the sudden life is taking over. Instead of sightseeing (or wishing you had time to do sightseeing), our weekends and weekdays are now all filled by school, work, (Chinese) study, birthday parties, grocery-shopping, and other mundane tasks. Much like our life in DC really.

Nonetheless, today I have for you some photos from a recent trip I took to Xiangshan park, which is also called "Fragrant Hills". (For once, I find the Chinese name easier than the English name, as "fragrant" really does not roll of my tongue easily.) It's a park on the west side of Beijing, and I found it to be some sort of weird cross-over between a city park (there were lots of paths, flowers, and man-made streams, ponds and buildings) and a hike up the mountains. It really was pretty beautiful, if you could manage to see it while hiking up hill among about a couple hundred other people doing the same :-)

As I was checking the Wikipedia page about the park, I realized I actually missed tons of buildings during our hike! I suppose next time I better check Wikipedia before I leave, so at least I know what to look for :-). The park was built (and rebuilt and rebuilt) various times for different emperors, and also severely damaged a couple times (in 1860 and 1900) by foreign troups. I suppose that explains why I didn't think the few buildings I did manage to see looked all that great. In any case, I went to see the park with a group of parents from Simon and Thomas' school, and we had a great time climbing the hill and then rushing back down again to catch the bus back to school.

Here are some pictures.

On the way up, we saw this man fold animals out of a long leaf. One of those dragons -- slightly more yellow and dried out -- is currently hanging out in our living room.

At the top, people were taking pictures...

...and tying red ribbons to the trees. (Presumably some sign of making it to the top? I don't really know.)

I didn't tie a ribbon, but I did make it to the top! Careful observers might notice a certain dragon in this picture.

On the way back I had a delicious drink of yoghurt. It was sweetened yoghurt, which you just drink with a straw from the cups shown here. And when you are done, you simply leave the cup in the recycling bin! :-)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Ugh, Beijing

If my last two postings made you want to move to Beijing, let me be sure to tell you, or rather show you, the other side of living here. Yesterday (Sunday), Simon's soccer practice got cancelled because of the pollution. The pictures in this post were taken on Friday and Saturday, and Sunday was pretty much as bad. A heavy grey cloud of smog just enveloped the city (including our suburban area), making it undesirable, if not unhealthy, to go outside.

I didn't need any air quality meter to tell me the pollution was bad-- you could just see, smell and (I might be imagining...) taste it, but this is what the air quality index for Beijing said yesterday around the time that Simon was to play soccer:

10-10-2010; 11:00; PM2.5; 408.0; 439; Hazardous // Ozone; no data
about 24 hours ago via BeijingAir AQI Tweet

Translated, this means that on Sunday morning 10 October at 11am, the concentration of fine particular matter (PM2.5, which are the tiniest particles, smaller than 2.5 micrometer across, thus smaller than a human hair and beyond what you can see with the naked eye) was 408.0 ug/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter air), which translated into an Air Quality Index of 439. (And for Ozone there was no data).

Well, an Air Quality Index of 439 is pretty much off the charts if you look at this EPA overview of the Index:

Source: Air Quality Index (AQI): A Guide to Air Quality and Your Health.

All Friday and throughout the weekend we were in the "Hazardous" category.

Because I am -- considering my environmental degree -- supposed to know these things and I am still having to look them up, I'll share with you some details I learned on these finer than fine specks that were hovering outside my house. (If you are not interested, just think I did this for my own enlightenment. It's amazing though how much more relevant these details are when you are actually having to breathe in this filthy air.)

In a nutshell, these extremely small particles in the air are a mixture of tiny solids and liquid droplets, all of different sizes and origin. They are (in part) created when fuel, like coal, oil, diesel, or wood, are burned, for example in a power plant or when we are driving a car. If they are not trapped in a filter at the time that they are created, the particles get up in the air, where -- if there are a lot of them and wind and rain do not move them out, they simply sit and form a dusty blanket.

Now, the Air Index above focuses on the PM2.5 particles, the particles smaller than 2.5 micrometer across. This is because the smaller the particles are, the larger their effect on your health, as it is these tiny particles that make it past your nose and throat, all the way into your lungs. (The larger particles, larger than 10 micrometer across, just irritate your nose, throat and eyes, which is annoying, but not nearly as bad as getting a lung disease.)

The particulate pollution is worst for anyone who already has some kind of lung disease, like asthma or bronchitis. Even if you are healthy though, it can in the long run affect your health. The particles also affect the development of children's lungs, which is exactly why Simon was not running outside chasing a ball yesterday morning.

(If you're fascinated by particulate matter now, you can continue reading on this U.S. EPA website. Dutchies may want to check out this page on fijnstof.)

Luckily for us, there was a heavy rain last night, so today the sky is blue (as the particles are out of the sky and now moving on to ground and surface water). The air quality index reads:

10-11-2010; 11:00; PM2.5; 5.0; 16; Good // Ozone; no data
3 minutes ago via BeijingAir AQI Tweet

In any case, if you are interested in all of China -- the good, bad, the ugly, the sunny and the "cloudy" days, you are still very welcome to stay in our house. Life continues to surprise and interest me here, even if it is not "Cuandixia" every day.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Magic school bus to Cuandixia

Excuse me if I am yawning, but last night I slept in a Chinese court yard outside Beijing. We got back home very early this morning, just in time for Paul to get a coffee, take a shower, and go to work. (Today was his first day at work after the short October break, but the boys are home from school till Monday.)

We spent our court yard night in a little town to the West of Beijing called Cuandixia. There's no way I can pronounce that name. I think I know how to say it -- Tsjoewan-die-shiaah in Dutch or Tchouwan-di-shiaah in English -- but somehow no-one ever understands me when I say it. Luckily, our driver -- again the famous Mr. Li -- knew exactly where it was, and despite some Beijing traffic we zipped up there in about two and a half hours.

Cuandixia is a nice, quaint old village built against a mountain slope. It's older than Beijing and sort of got stuck in time. I actually was joking with the boys that Mr. Li's car was like the Magic School Bus, the time-travelling bus that's featured in a popular science book series for kids. I must have been quite believable, because I ended up having to assure the boys we weren't really going to travel through time :-)

Well, Cuandixia clearly has one foot in the 21st century - our courtyard hotel had a TV, the toilet could be flushed (with a garden hose that hung off the side), and you had to buy a ticket for 30 kuai to even enter the town. But, apart from that, you really could imagine you were in old, if not ancient, China. All you can and are supposed to do in the town is just to wonder around the narrow streets, climb up and down the steps, admire tiny tucked-away temples, keep your kids from crashing down the narrow ridges, peek into court yards, and wonder what you will have for dinner because lunch was already so lovely.

(Weirdly enough, and I don't know if this is a Cuandixia thing, but we weren't able to get the regular white rice you get with any Chinese meal. The two restaurants we visited only had a purple-ish kind of rice, colored by a few beans mixed in with the rice. They also baked a lot of corn pancakes, which tasted like corn bread. An interesting combination of rice, bean and corn I thought, not something I expected in China.)

Speaking of food, be sure to check out the photo of Thomas on the right, carefully greeting our lunch. I should point out that up until now, our many Chinese lunches really have not included the spread of insects, dogs, or other non-traditional food choices that might come to mind when you think of China. But it is true that dishes here more often than in other places include a head or feet of an animal to show you the food is nice and fresh.

In the next picture, you can see a 92 year-old lady sitting on the steps in front of a door. Our driver pointed out her feet were rather small, suggesting that she would as a child have had her feet bound. If you are interested, this NPR article on footbinding gives a good overview of the history of the practice. I was actually surprised to learn that despite it being illegal since 1912, women continued to do it for a little while longer because of the special status -- a way up the social ladder -- small feet could bring.

In searching for more information about Cuandixia, I also came across this interesting 1996 article in the New York Times, a lovely bit of old China, languishing in the new. Today, fourteen years after this article was published, it looks like the article's predictions have come through. More people have moved away from Cuandixia, but at the same time tourism seems to be saving the village (or at least the buildings in the village, not necessarily the old way of life).

A final interesting tidbit about the town is that all the people in it are descendants of the same Han family who founded the village. I took home the business card of one of the Han's, so one day we can go back and hike a bit more in the mountains around the town. For now, this was our court yard visit. The boys did seem to enjoy their trip through time and the cozy night in our one-bedroom house.

Here are some more pictures of our adventure:

The narrow streets of Cuandixia.

Entrance to a court yard. All the home owners in the village participate in the tourist activities and have a sign to show they are a restaurant or hotel.

Lunch with driver Li.

Corn growing above the street.

The Chinese character for "Cuan" which according to Internet lore means "stove." The entire name Cuandixia refers to it being some sort of "shelter" to protect from cold and war.

Drawing at the entrance of our court yard hotel.

Part of a temple on the hill above town.

Outlook over the village. Ignore the sun and try to see the cluster of homes among the trees.

Field with corn.

Statue in a temple.

Beautiful view and some unsightly garbage. There was actually little littering in Cuandixia - the town is kept nice and clean.

Our court yard hotel. We slept in the house (a one-room house) on one side of the court yard, with friends, our driver, and some strangers in the other homes.

Just like in ancient China: Two guys sitting outside and having a drink.

For the villagers, our blond kids were the tourist attraction. The boys are posing for a picture.

At the edge of the village.

Convenient storage spot.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Hello, want banana? (Visit to the Great Wall)

Great Wall at Mutianyu

This week is flying by. As I mentioned in my last post, this week is a vacation week because of the October 1 Holiday that honors the foundation of the People's Republic of China. Schools and many work places are closed and people seem to be travelling to visit their families or simply see a bit more of the world.

Today we went to see the Great Wall (in Dutch: Chinese Muur). It's funny, but when you travel to China, one of the first things you'll probably want to do when you get off the plane is to visit the Wall. But when you are moving here, you first spend your days trying to figure out how to pay a phone bill (missed the deadline), hang pictures on the wall (two gongren came to do it for me), or get your nails done (well, it is part of my cultural experience here!). We didn't really have time (or a car) to go before, and twice when we had time and car, it was raining!

Not today though. Today all the stars aligned and at 8:50ish Driver Li - who we know from the time that we were still looking for a house -- showed up with his car and we headed out towards Mutianyu. The thing about the Great Wall is of course that it is really long and there are many places around Beijing where you can go see it. Some places are more touristy than others, and at some places the wall is in better shape than others. Mutianyu, where we went today, is a beautiful site, but it is rather touristy. You sort of have to make your way past many T-shirt ("T-shirt, one dollar!") and fruit (hello, want a banana?) stands. I honestly cannot tell you how many bananas I have been offered today, but it is more than I can eat in a year. (Interestingly enough, I did not see anyone actually buy a banana, but I might have been too busy eyeing the one-dollar T-shirts).

If this description isn't already touristy enough for you, please also note that to get on top of the Wall at this location, you actually can board a cable car. And after your leisure stroll across the wall, you can either again take a cable car, or -- like the adventurous Dutch -- a toboggan slide down. (A toboggan is a sort of sled, and you slide down like you do with bobsledding, except with about 1/1000 the speed.)

Here are some pictures:

Cable car ride up.

Walking on top of the Wall.

Mo-o-om, I am here!

The big red himself.

Thanks for traveling to the Wall along with me. Now go grab that banana!